I wanted to take a few minutes to address a new iOS app called MailTracker which I learned about through my Twitter feed this morning. Where TechCrunch calls this app stalker-y, I call it a violation of historical and well respected email standards (from the folks who design, manage and inform us what the standards are and how things should work – smart experienced people who have actually given email some thought). It’s also likely to become harmful to email senders who actually try to respect privacy. At the bottom is a solution if you are using iOS Apple Mail and agree that MailTracker is a violation of your privacy.

What MailTracker Does

Here is part of the app’s description.

  • Unlimited tracking and notifications (in other words, brings email read receipts to iOS Apple Mail)
  • Location information & device details (in other words, provides the location where the email was opened and information on the device that opened it.)
  • How many times your email was viewed
  • How long your email was read for
  • Supports Gmail, Google Apps Business, Yahoo!, Outlook.com/Hotmail, IMAP/SMTP providers

Are you a marketer who thinks this is a great idea? Well here’s the other side of the coin and why it may not be a good idea to support such an app.

In today’s climate, privacy is becoming a more common talking point. MailTracker not only takes away privacy from email but it violates the spirit of actual email standards.

MailTracker Violates Spirit Of Email Specs

The originators of email realized that privacy is something to be considered and throughout revisions of standards surrounding email (see RFC specs) discuss privacy in the context of this topic. The read receipt requests of email clients are governed by these standards.

It is because of such privacy concerns that MDNs (Message Disposition Notifications) were advisory in nature. In other words, there was always an option for an email recipient to decline a read email request. Do you remember getting that request from a certain colleague in Outlook who wanted to always know when you opened their emails? Like many, you probably declined allowing a read receipt message to be sent back.

For many, email is still a place where privacy should exist.

MailTracker obviously violates the spirit of email privacy and RFC specs by removing the notification that an email is being tracked as well as the option to decline the “read receipt” request while providing the sender a host of other information that includes the recipient’s location and type of device used. Why also does someone need to know how long an email is opened for?

These types of notifications not only intrude on privacy but they have no real meaning other then indicating a message was opened or maybe how long it was opened for. In no way does it indicate that a message was actually read, or even how long it was read for.

Using pixel tracking technology whereby an unseen pixel is inserted into an email that tracks and provides the information that apps like MailTracker provides bypass the original requirements of “read email notifications”.

Harm To Marketers

So as mainstream users become more aware of this technology, especially within today’s privacy conversations, there will likely be a backlash. Online advertisers probably don’t like to see this as a mainstream conversation because it could further damage their credibility and harm their analytic sources. We won’t even touch the next conversation of device fingerprinting here.

But for now, users have a choice. If we choose not to go along with the usage of apps like MailTracker, we can and will find ways to disable this feature (see further below). By disabling the features that make MailTracker work, other marketers will suffer the effects. It will mean that maybe their sent emails, which include legitimately requested images, may stop reaching their subscribers / customers.

Do marketers who try to respect user privacy want to be harmed because of being thrown into the same bucket and treated the same way as apps such as MailTracker?

It’s something to consider.

The ins-and-outs of email were my turf in the past. So this topic is of special interest to me because of that, but also because email is still part of a social media strategy for businesses.

I hope that Apple and others will consider the harm that apps such as MailTracker can have on users as well as the general marketing community. Apple, please refer to the relevant RFCs regarding email and read receipts. Approving this type of app sends an anti-privacy message as well as a question about your commitment to standards, especially ones that are designed to protect email users. Hopefully, approval of the MailTracker app was simply an innocent judgement lapse by someone maybe not well versed in email standards and user experience.

Removing the choice from email recipients to decline an email read receipt notification is harmful to the user experience and will effect the good email senders because the following implemented solution will affect ALL emails with images – including the ones with tracking pixels. However, the solution returns a choice to the email recipient who can decide whether they want to download an image included within an email.

Bypassing Email Trackers

From the iOS device, click on Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Load Remote Images (slide off)

[Update]:

After doing a Twitter search for MailTracker it saddens me to see more than just a few who are willing to take privacy away from their email recipients by using this app. I hope that folks will consider the deeper consequences of promoting MailTracker or any similar apps.

One Response

  1. Thank you. I agree : 100%
    I had deleted but still had MailTracker as server. Ugh.
    It is very disturbing as we are living in the reality where Privacy is available only if you own an island – and even then – very sad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.